Wednesday, July 02, 2008

London's burning

Last week, here in London, I went for a rather remarkable walk.

And While London Burns is an "operatic audio tour" in three acts, a self-guided, immersive audio experience of The City, a.k.a. The Square Mile, London's financial district. The story it tells is woven around the area's extravagant fossil fuel consumption; past, present and (other things being equal) future. It's told mainly through the anguished persona of a young investment manager, who starts out by showing you his place of work, and who, as you listen, quits his job in a wave of self-disgust and wanders the streets ruminating aloud on his, and our, ugly predicament. It deals with two layers; one schematic, the tangled "carbon web" wrapped around the city; and the other personal, the woman who left him, along with her own parallel career in high finance, for a remote off-the-grid commune.

The tour is a project of political art collective Platform, which "works across disciplines for social and ecological justice... combin[ing] the transformatory power of art with the tangible goals of campaigning, the rigour of in-depth research with the vision to promote alternative futures." An impressive, and resonant, undertaking. At the project website, you can download the audio files for free (thanks to Arts Council England, which puts public money to work "to get more art to more people in more places"). Then, you put them on a portable music player (iPod or similar) and make your way to the Starbucks adjacent to the underground railway station at Bank, where the journey begins.

This wasn't the first time I had taken the walk. It was on a brief stopover here in February 02007, on a quiet Sunday morning, that I did it the first time. En route to the airport, I wheeled my heavy suitcase through deserted streets and alleys, and the grim eschatological tone of the tour and its melancholy score was underlined by the emptiness of the buildings and thoroughfares along the way. The tour is generally intended to be taken during business hours, however, because at one stage you're guided indoors through the Royal Exchange Building (formerly the London Stock Exchange), now a luxury shopping centre. The other time, the building had been closed; but on this occasion, a lunchtime crowd of snappily dressed financiers sat round tables in the vaulted atrium, surrounded by top-end stores like De Beers and Cartier. Generally I found the backdrop of the teeming, oblivious hive of The City just as effective as its sombre, emptied-out weekend version. The latter condition, however, does make the tour a little bit easier to hear.

The audio walk -- which, regrettably, by its nature can't really be appreciated or grasped by an audient not on the spot -- emphasises how much things change on the surface, and how little they change underneath. There's a world-weariness about this view that's not shallow cynicism, but burdened by a deep awareness of history. I think the great achievement of the project is that the walker comes to appreciate this depth, and accompanying entanglements, much better. Along the way, you cross the line of the Great Fire of London (01666), as well as the possible future shoreline of a risen River Thames. One of the practical consequences of the constant change is disruption of the tour's route as time goes on: both a pedestrian overpass leading away from Tower 42, and the Monument which concludes the walk, are currently closed for renovations. Obviously the times for walking certain sequences do vary, and the directions were sparse enough that I accidentally strayed from the path once or twice the first go around, but I was able to hit pause and get my bearings. Another potential frustration that can pull you from the story is if your batteries run out. That happened to me ten minutes in, this time -- a charming little irony for an audio walk about unsustainable energy consumption, ha ha. I had to recharge and come back the next day.

Still, I find this rapidly developing medium, the immersive audio walk, a fantastic way to experience a place. You get a new, mind-expanding vision of the City that is afforded only by inhabiting it differently (a bit like the Situationists' dérive, but carefully constructed to place you in another man's shoes). The cocooning of the listener in her private aural environment, which might in other contexts be regretted for disconnecting people from their fellows and surroundings (armies of commuters spend their journeys either shouting into cellphones or retreating into iPod solitude), in this setting provides instead a cinematic soundtrack-to-life, an unpredictable (the first time, at least) meandering path to which you can surrender, and a thrilling sense of insider's initiation. Sensory synchronicities, both planned and unplanned, make the experience exciting, and somehow grounding. The voiceover mentions a layer of fine black dust on all the buildings about -- the accretion of miniscule particles of fossil fuel exhaust -- so you touch a finger to the handrail, and it gets coated in grime. On two occasions, during the choral refrain admonishing the audio-walker to "look up at the sky", I raised my eyes in time to catch, at precisely that moment, a jet passing overhead.

I love the contradiction that it's substantially the same experience, and yet unique in each detail, every time it is taken. The audio walk is a designed experience, the script pre-recorded, but the motion performed by you, with the improvised assistance of the location and thousands of unwitting extras. It's more unpredictable than a film, feels more labile than most live theatre, and is certainly more personal, by dint of participation, than either.

The essence of the experience is not the walk per se, but the detailed choreographing of attention in the midst of a genuinely chaotic environment. Directing the attention, cognitive and sensory, in a real place in motion, seems to make it eminently suitable for futures, which is ultimately about perceiving the present differently. This is the only audio walk I've encountered which really succeeds in heightening appreciation of the fragility, ephemerality and contingency of the present, although I see this medium as ideally suited to engendering that reflective frame of mind.*

In any case, I'd recommend this to anyone within reach of London who's interested in the forces behind climate change, or even in just the possibilities of this immersive medium. Platform is to be applauded for a daringly critical piece of public art that asks, and enables, us to survey and move through our dazzlingly, dizzyingly busy surroundings with a more inquiring gaze; it invites us not to be overwhelmed by all the things that appear to change, but to be more sensitive to the things which stubbornly do not.

On that point; yesterday, while getting updated on Platform's current work, I watched their recent home-brewed documentary Burning Capital, which is about BP (formerly British, now ostensibly "beyond", Petroleum; one of the largest energy companies in the world, headquartered in London). It's quite a technical investigation -- not in an engineering sense, but a political one -- so may not enthrall all comers, but it does explicitly ask one question implicitly posed by And While London Burns: "How long is it before government, forced by rising public pressure, changes the theoretical cost of carbon into an actual cost, and the company is forced to carry the real economic impact of climate change?" (Burning Capital, Act 3.1)

How long, indeed.


* Colleague Jake Dunagan (HRCFS) and I did a bit of research towards a possible futures-themed audio walk in Chinatown, Honolulu. As funding for the (surprisingly expensive) studio production bit proved elusive, that project morphed into a more immediately viable, but very different, multi-part FoundFutures intervention late last year. Still, with my appetite whetted thanks to that development process, the series of audio walks or tours I've taken in the past year and a half is surprising even to me: Chinatown Manhattan; the 9/11 Sonic Memorial; Wall Street; Belleville, Paris; the disappointingly dull Da Vinci Code tour at The Louvre; the eye-opening driving tour Invisible-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I've also taken more standard key-in-a-number tours of Pearl Harbor, Stonehenge, Tate Modern (a multimedia guide on a handheld computer), and a couple of urban walks of the cheap talking-head variety that gives audio tours a bad name. The one that first alerted me to the potential of the medium, which I first took in 01998 and revisited last year, was the Alcatraz prison audio tour in San Francisco. The most fully realised urban experiences were the Soundwalk tours (Chinatown, Wall St, and Belleville), along with And While London Burns.

6 comments:

John Mahaffie said...

Stuart,

I was glad to hear about this, and began (before scrolling down) to think, why hasn't he mentioned doing a futures/immersive experience using this technique? I was glad to see you thought of it, and sorry to see that it's expensive to do. It sounds like a great idea, and I've been trying to use a street setting from time to time to do some more comprehensive thinking. In other words, sitting (perhaps at an outdoor cafe table) and thinking forward 20 years, what will this scene look like. This is a powerful thing to do, as you know. THANKS!

stuart said...

Thanks for dropping in, John. I'd be interested to hear more about how you'd put this medium to work -- or if you know of anything comparable that has already been done.

Judy said...

Abbe Don looked back from the present in her collaborative project with HPLabs/KQED in 2005. Why couldn't you use the same platform to go forward? Let me know if the links don't appear and I will email:

Scape The Hood (fall 2005, Hewlett-Packard/KQED) – An interactive, situated mediascape. Working with HP Researcher Abbe Don, I (David Lawrence) co-produced the Project Artaud section of this experimental design/research project in locative media. Using HP's Mobile Bristol Mediascape platform, we brought a city block to life with GPS-triggered stories and sounds. See these press links for more details:

Hewlett-Packard site
San Francisco Chronicle
San Jose Mercury News

For more information on the Mediascape platform and to download 'Scape The Hood, visit the Hewlett-Packard mscape site at these links:

http://www.mscapers.com
http://www.mscapers.com/msin/ABA0000022

stuart said...

Many thanks, Judy. I'd forgotten about mscape, but it's certainly an avenue for location-based storytelling that could be used for a futures project to "go forward".

We did consider handheld computers as a platform for this kind of project, but the challenge was that, according to our best estimates, market penetration, hence accessibility, was much lower for these devices (see mscape's hardware requirements list) than for audio players. We felt the access hurdle needed to be low in order to maximise the potential audience. (Converting possible, that is, suitably equipped, audients into actual ones is another challenge again.)

From that point of view, mobile phones, especially the growing subset of mp3-playing ones used with earbuds, could be among the best platforms for urban audio walks.

Guy Yeomans said...

Referencing UK media, I just wanted to offer you a 'heads-up' on a short, 3-part series of programmes BBC Radio 3 is scheduled to broadcast this week (from Monday 4th August).

Details as below:

The Future is Not What it Used To Be...

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/theessay/pip/lqcrl/

As a child of the 1950s, Richard Foster thought that by now he would be wearing a silver jumpsuit and spending endless hours of leisure zooming around on a personal jet-propelled backpack - all in a world where poverty, sickness and religion had been banished by technology. So what went wrong?

Duration:

15 minutes

Playlist:

Part 1 - Monday 4 August 2008 23:00-23:15

Broken Dreams: Richard investigates two contrasting utopian worlds in novels from the 1880s: caring capitalism in Looking Backward by American author Edward Bellamy and communitarian socialism in William Morris' News from Nowhere.


Part 2 - Wednesday 6 August 2008 23:00-23:15

Trust me, I'm a scientist: How the technological age is measuring up to the utopian visions set out in the speculative novels of previous eras, focusing on Wells' The Shape of Things To Come and Huxley's Brave New World.

Part 3 - Thursday 7 August 2008 23:00-23:15

Dystopian visions: Nevil Shute's cold-war era On The Beach depicted normal life after a nuclear holocaust and Samuel Youd's The Death of Grass imagined a virus that destroys all grain crops.Presenter Richard Foster looks at the aspect of the human psyche that craves apocalypse, and wonders if that fear is used as a political tool.

I'd imagine that the programme would remain available for the 7 days after each broadcast via the 'The Essay' website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/theessay/).

You may also be interested in a recent Guardian Weekend article on 'cities at sea', extract as follows:

"...Cities at sea have long been a libertarian dream, but concerns over climate change have now pushed the idea on to the environmental agenda. Do they hold water?"

URL - http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/19/climatechange.greenbuilding

Guy, St. Paul's Reach

stuart said...

Guy, thanks a lot for these links. The article on "cities at sea" was very good, and I'll certainly try to catch the radio series on utopias.